How to Share Documents on a Social Collaboration Site

By David F. Carr

File management capabilities vary between social collaboration platforms, but as a rule, this is an area where the designers of these platforms tend to favor simplicity over sophistication. In other words, social sharing of a file attached to a status or blog post or posted to a group should be as easy as possible.

On a social collaboration platform, you can share a file in various ways.

  • Upload it to the activity stream or a group or workspace.

  • Share a document that someone else has uploaded with your colleagues.

  • Include a link to the document in a status post or comment.

The point of file collaboration in a social environment is to take advantage of the social dimension through the ability to discuss or share files in the social stream in addition to collaborating on the files themselves. When a file is posted to an enterprise social network, it also carries with it links to the profiles of the document authors. That supports a core virtue of social collaboration: the ability to find content through people and people through content.

Uploading and downloading shared documents

Sharing documents obviously starts with the ability to upload and download them, which is something every social collaboration environment supports, and often in more than one way. Here are a few common patterns for sharing document files:

  • Basic: Click a button labeled something like Upload and use the browser’s file choosing dialog box to select one or more files.

  • Drag and drop: Drag one or more files from a folder on your computer onto the social collaboration user interface, and the upload starts as soon as you hit the correct drop region on the page.

  • Desktop file system integration: With the addition of a desktop software component (such as the IBM Connections Desktop Plugin for Windows), users can right-click a file in any Windows folder and get a menu of commands that includes an option for sharing the file on Connections.

  • Desktop app integration: Microsoft Office is the most common target for plug-ins that simplify the process of publishing documents to a collaboration platform directly from within the app. An example is Jive for Office. In this case, the integration is at the level of the application rather than the file system.

Following a successful upload, a link to the file will be displayed on the collaboration network with either the name of the file or a title provided by the user.

File synchronization apps and plug-ins can also automate the process of keeping the local desktop copy of a file in sync with the latest version in the collaboration environment.

Previewing a shared document in the browser

A handy alternative to downloading a file is the ability to preview it in the browser. Jive, IBM Connections, Yammer, and others provide built-in file viewers for this purpose. The following figure shows a document preview in Jive. This makes sense for anyone who wants to read the file but not necessarily edit it or save a copy to his computer. You may give feedback through the comments associated with the file, based on what you saw in the preview.

A web-based preview lets you see the contents of a document without needing to download it.

A web-based preview lets you see the contents of a document without needing to download it.

A few browser-based apps go beyond previews to support web-based editing of files, a capability first seen in Google Docs. IBM has a similar app, IBM Docs, which can be used with IBM Connections. Both allow editing Microsoft Office files in a browser-based editor.

Note that web-based editing is probably most appropriate for relatively simple documents, such as memos. For more heavily formatted documents, you’ll incur some risk of the web-based editor failing to preserve the original formatting. Preview apps generally do a good job of approximating the formatting of the original file, and even if the preview is imperfect, at least the underlying file is unaltered.

Checking documents in and out

In general, collaborating on a document file means downloading it, using desktop software to edit it, and uploading a new version. Document management systems traditionally avoid confusion over who is editing a file with a checkin/checkout mechanism:

  • Check-out: When a collaborator checks out a downloaded file, it is locked for editing, and only that person can upload a new version to check in as the new, official copy. An administrator can also remove the lock, if necessary (for example, if someone locks an important file right before going on vacation).

  • Check-in: When a new version of a file is checked in, it becomes the official current copy, but older versions are preserved in case you need to go back to them.

Sharing documents as social objects

IBM Connections supports file check-in/check-out and other basic document management functions, but many social collaboration tools take a simpler approach, relying on coordination among collaborators through the feed. In other words, they handle documents like other social objects, such as links or images, that are shared in the activity stream or a group discussion. Someone who revises a document may simply upload a new version as an attachment to a status post describing the changes, and the newest version that shows up in the activity stream (or in a search) is presumed to be the most current version.

Sharing files through the activity stream leaves some room for confusion, as versions of files proliferate. Make sure you understand how sharing is managed on your social collaboration platform.